The composition of the Toronto Marlies is slowly coming into focus with 21 players cut from Maple Leafs training camp this week.
With the American Hockey League preseason starting on Friday, the Marlies come into 2010-11 a completely revamped and healthy squad compared to the rag-tag group of players that finished with the club a season ago.
Injuries ravaged the team last year to the point where general manager Jeff Jackson was forced to borrow players on loan from the ECHL and rival AHL franchises just to ice a full roster.
In total, 49 different players put on a Marlies jersey in 2009-2010, as the team stumbled to a 33-35-12 and missed the playoffs.
But the shortage of players and success might be a thing of the past, as Leafs GM Brian Burke and new Marlies GM Dave Nonis brought in plenty of talent who will call Ricoh Centre home.
Four key members
Amongst those players are the “big four” — a Burke-devised title given to top defencemen Keith Aulie, Simon Gysbers, Juraj Mikus and Korbinian Holzer.
That quartet will play a big role on the Marlies and depending on their performance, perhaps on the Leafs.
“Those four young defencemen, you hope that one of them can turn into a real solid guy, if not two or three of them,” head coach Dallas Eakins told the National Post. “So we’re obviously excited about that.
“And it’s exciting to have players you can work with and have a real chance to do something.”
Like the Leafs, the Marlies have also been built from the net out, a philosophy Burke has used to construct his teams in the past.
With plenty of depth on defence, the Marlies are also stacked in goal.
Burke and Nonis went out this offseason and scooped up the top-two goaltending prospects available in former Cornell standout Ben Scrivens and monstrous Finnish netminder Jussi Rynnas.
They will join starter James Reimer and backup Andrew Engelage in a competitive goaltending battle.
Up front the club will also get an added boost, as a strong core of Leaf picks and prospects will be relied upon to bring youthful exuberance and lead the team offensively.
At the top of this list is 2009 first-round pick Nazem Kadri.
While Kadri still remains with the Leafs, Burke has made it clear that the AHL is likely in the cards for the London, Ont., native.
“If he doesn’t make our team, which right now it’s looking like he’s not going to, then he starts with the Marlies for me,” Burke said on a conference call Sunday. “We’ll meet organizationally on that, I may get overruled but I doubt it.”
Joining Kadri up front is another highly-touted prospect in Jerry D’Amigo, along with German import Marcel Mueller, Toronto native Brayden Irwin and CHL graduates Dale Mitchell and Mikhail Stefanovich.
The infusion of youth should help create an internal battle, as each player will be auditioning to be the next NHL call up.
It’s a similar situation to last year, where college players Tyler Bozak, Christian Hanson and Viktor Stalberg did their time and subsequently saw NHL action as a result.
Eakins will return as the head coach, but the Marlies will be looking for an on-ice leader after the departure of captain Ben Ondrus.
Alex Foster is a likely candidate to grab the captain’s reigns, as he has been with the club since 2005-06 and is currently the longest serving member of the Marlies.
Pre-season action kicks off on Friday, as Toronto takes on the Rochester Americans in Bradford, Ont., before returning home for a rematch on Saturday night.